We know that Florent Schmitt’s penultimate work was the Symphony No. 2, composed in 1957 and premiered in 1958 by Charles Munch and the French National Radio Orchestra a few months before the composer’s death at age 87.
The question is, which composition stands as Schmitt’s first essay in the genre? Because in fact, the composer left no work specifically labeled as a “first” symphony.
So there’s confusion as to whether the Janiana Symphony for String Orchestra, Op. 101 from 1941 represents the composer’s first one … or if that designation should go to the Symphonie Concertante for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 82, composed in 1931.
Personally, I feel that Janiana should get the nod, in that it is a four-movement symphony in every sense of the term – its brevity notwithstanding.
And what a wonderful piece this symphony is: richly scored and musically fulfilling from first note to last.
Anyone who thinks that Schmitt’s considerable talents in orchestration might prove less effective in a piece scored for stringed instruments alone needn’t worry. In fact, Schmitt treats the strings with the same degree of luxuriance that we hear in the composer’s big orchestral scores like La Tragédie de Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre and Salammbô.
Taking a look at the parts for Janiana reveals all sorts of devices that add musical interest — and that take this piece far beyond the realm of “string quartet writ large” – such as numerous divisi, tremolos, arpeggios and trills.
Too, the melodies and harmonies in this symphony are robust, complex flavors that combine to produce a richness that is all-too-often missing from strings-only scores.
Janiana is a work that certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome; taken as a whole, the symphony lasts less than 20 minutes. It’s divided into four movements as follows:
- Assez anime, a telescoped sonata form of fewer than 100 measures
- Musette d’allure joyeuse, featuring a capricious and playful scherzo rhythm
- Chorale (Grave, assez lent), its fervent character suggesting an homage to Schmitt’s teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré
- Avec entrain, sans precipitation, a spirited conclusion that delivers not only pounding rhythms, but also passionate musical passages and lavish harmonies that are “to die for” …
The Janiana Symphony was composed in 1941 at Schmitt’s summer home in Artiguemy, high in the Pyrenees Mountains. As alluded to in its title, the symphony was dedicated to Jane Evrard, France’s first female professional orchestral conductor, and her Orchestre féminin de Paris. This was an ensemble of 25 women musicians that Maestra Evrard founded in 1930, and for which other French composers such as Albert Roussel, Jean Rivier and Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur also created scores.
It was Evrard’s orchestra that would give the premiere performance of the symphony in Paris in the spring of 1942. Present at the premiere, the music critic Suzanne Demarquez wrote these words about the performance:
“Jane Evrard conducted with a supple and gracious femininity. What refinement and complexity in the music — and what vigor in her actions: a flame within the fire!”
The premiere performance of the Janiana Symphony turned out to be the last concert that Evrard’s Orchestre feminin would give in wartime Paris before disbanding. Likewise, the fortunes of Schmitt’s composition were destined to be disappointing — and it appears that performances of the work have been relatively few and far between in the decades since it was written.
A March 1946 performance of Janiana featuring Michel Blin’s chamber orchestra was written up in the pages of the newspaper Le Monde, which reported that the event also included Florent Schmitt himself talking about his relationship with “his master, Gabriel Fauré.” Also reported in Le Monde was a January 1953 performance by the Vivaldi Ensemble under the direction of Mario Facchinetti, done at the Salle Gaveau. Nearly a decade later, Janiana was featured on a concert program during the Fauré Festival in Foix, with the Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse conducted by Louis Auriacombe.
The Romanian conductor Rémus Tzincoca, who studied in Paris with Eugène Bigot following World War II, is another musician who championed the music. After coming to North America in the 1950s as assistant to the composer and violinist Georges Enescu, Maestro Tzincoca conducted Janiana with the Orchestra da Camara, an ensemble he founded and directed in the New York City metropolitan area. One of those live performances was captured in a private recording that has been uploaded to YouTube, courtesy of Max Valley’s estimable music channel.
[As an aside, Maestro Tzincoca also presented La Tragédie de Salomé, Schmitt’s most famous orchestral composition, leading the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a February 1955 concert performance.]
To my knowledge, there has been only one commercial recording of this work ever made – recorded by Erato in 1966 with the Jean-François Paillard Orchestra.
Janiana was a work that Maestro Paillard would champion throughout his musical career, performing it as late as 2007 leading the Mito Chamber Orchestra in Japan when he was nearly 80 years old. Speaking about the score during his Japan tour, Maestro Paillard said this about the music:
“When Jane Evrard retired, I inherited several scores from her (with composers’ dedications) which I still possess. The title of ‘Janiana’ means, of course, that it was dedicated to Jane Evrard.
The music of Florent Schmitt is far removed from Debussy’s. It has strong, intense rhythms and sensuous melodies. It even gives the impression of some exotic touches. As such, the music of Janiana exploits every possibility of the string orchestra, and it contains great technical challenges, too …”
As the first of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral works besides La Tragédie de Salomé to receive a recording in the stereophonic era, I’m frankly surprised that no additional recordings have emerged in the decades since, because the piece is one of the most full-bodied and engaging scores to come from Schmitt’s pen – so very satisfying on so many levels and with obvious audience appeal.
Fortunately, the Erato recording remains available today as part of a multi-disc set featuring five important Schmitt works for orchestra and for chamber ensemble. It has also been uploaded to the MQCD Musique-Classique website, where it can be heard in far better audio fidelity than in the inferior transcription of the same recording uploaded to YouTube.
To my mind, the Janiana Symphony is a gem of a piece that would be a stellar addition to the repertoire of any chamber or string orchestra. It is a piece that deserves to be far better known. If they haven’t done so already, here’s hoping groups like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will decide to program this symphony someday.
Update (4/21/20): After being in the shadows for far too long, the Janiana Symphony has been scheduled for not one, but two concert presentations during the 2020/21 concert season — one in Japan and the other in Europe.
The Japanese concert is scheduled for October 2020 and will feature the Sinfonietta Shizuoka conducted by Tomoya Nakagawa. The other performance is happening in France in January 2021 and will feature the Orchestre National d’Auvergne under the direction of its music director, Roberto Forés Veses.
More details about these upcoming performances can be found here.